Failure to Communicate

Posted: Jan 12, 2015
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In my now 15 year career in Human Resources almost every workplace problem I encounter comes down to communication. 

Communication problems take several forms. Here are my top three.

Incompatible Styles: You say tomato, I say tomato – often when two people have different approaches to talking through a conflict (one focuses on the ideals while the other one focuses on logic, for example) things can erode quickly. When two people have differing communication styles and those differences are not discussed, it can lead to the erroneous assumption that the opposite style makes invalid decisions. Unchecked, this leads to an overall loss of respect and high contention – essentially the longer this goes on the deeper the communication hole.

Failure to talk: While this one seems pretty obvious, it happens a lot in veterinary medicine given the number of self-identified introverts we have in the field. While we all have to talk to one another in a given day, I find that sometimes people fail to ask questions or share information out of assumption. They assume someone else already knows, that they would ask if they wanted to know, or that they would already know if they were supposed to. This leads to gaps in information which leads quickly to rumors and gossip.

Third Party Interference:  There is a legit reason hearsay isn’t allowed in court: hearsay is just plain not reliable. Imagine that you come into work one day and the first thing you hear is that Becky is mad at you because you missed cleaning one of the exam rooms when you closed the night before (totally an accident). Rather than going to talk to Becky directly, I often find that employees tend to assume that Becky is upset and that henceforth colors all communication for the rest of the day (or even the next few months). Give yourself a few days of “so and so is mad” AND “so and so said you were _____” and you suddenly have two people who hate working together.

So, how do you avoid these pitfalls?

  1. Remember, the only thing you can control in any given situation is yourself. If you work with someone who has a very different way of communicating than you do, try to mirror their verbal and nonverbal language. If they are more verbose, use more words. If they explain a decision using only logic and fact, pull those reasons out of your own argument first before talking about ideals and people. This will help you get your point across more efficiently.

    Special notes to managers: the person with the most power has to do to most flexing. You need to make sure that your communication is purposeful, especially when dealing with an employee who you find challenging. 
  2. There are days on the floor when things are moving so fast and you are seeing so many patients, you barely have time to use the bathroom let alone ask questions. But, if you are running into communication vacuums, take some time to ask. I see this most often with ancillary tasks. If one of the techs is given the task of helping with inventory, often people question why and even feel slighted. The answer is often less personal and may just be a matter of convenience or that the technician did inventory at another clinic and no one else knows that. The trick is to ask in a respectful and non-confrontational way. For example, "I noticed we have changed the way we are managing inventory. Can you tell me more about what challenges we were having and why the change was made?" And if you were interested in the job, "I noticed that Megan is doing inventory. I’m interested in helping and wasn’t sure if you were open to letting Megan train me as a back-up? I haven’t done inventory before, but I am good with numbers and thought my skill set would be helpful for the clinic."

    Special note to managers: Even if you are an introverted or think information is on a need-to-know basis, the burden to be transparent is with you. Millennials particularly are used to having access to a slew of information in seconds; you need to make sure you are making an effort to over communicate about decisions and processes. While you made the decision and no one has to know why, the more you explain the more you will cut down on gossip.
  3. Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves is third party interference and the number one way to combat it is direct communication. If someone tells you someone said something about you, is mad at you, thinks you make faces – whatever – go directly to them (again, respectfully and professionally) and work out the problem with them. I know it’s scary, but ripping the Band-Aid off in the moment is a lot less painful than slowly ripping it off over the course of several months or even years.  
  4. Let’s use the Becky example from above. I would have gone to Becky and said, "Hi Becky, I heard you were a bit frustrated with me because I forgot to clean out exam room 3 before I left.  I am so sorry. I left in a hurry and my inconsideration was unintentional.  It won’t happen again." 

    Possible scary answers:

    "You’re always inconsiderate. No one likes working with you."

    "Who told you I said that? I am never telling anyone ANYTHING again!"

    (Rolling eyes) "Fine, whatever."

    All these answers suck. There I said it. But you can only control yourself and you handled the situation professionally. You also taught Becky that you were not afraid to have tough conversations, so moving forward she will remember that when complaining to others about you. Most likely she will deny she was upset and you both can move on with your day.

    Special note to managers: do not encourage hearsay amongst your staff. If two staff members are running into conflict, help them deal with it directly rather than being an intermediary. When someone reports something to you that someone else said, cut off the conversation and go deal with that person directly. This takes away the power of the third party intermediary.

    Communication is tricky but variety is the spice of life. Try to go into it assuming those around you are good intentioned, knowing you can only control yourself, and dealing with things as they come up rather than festering. Only then can you truly concentrate on what you love and have been hired to do.